Both Conservative and Liberal

By Tom Lambrecht –

The United Methodist Church inherited from the Church of England via John Wesley the idea of “the middle way.” For Anglicans, this “middle way” meant the church could be both catholic and reformed (the two major theological poles in the 1500’s and 1600’s when the Anglican Church was formed). For Wesley and Methodists ever since, this has meant pursuing both personal spirituality and social ministry. For United Methodists, it is not strange to believe that we can both evangelize and preach the gospel as well as serve the homeless and advocate for racial justice.

The latest iteration of this “middle way” or “balancing act” understanding of the church comes from the Rev. Adam Hamilton’s remarks at a recent leadership conference at his Church of the Resurrection held for several thousand United Methodist leaders. He maintains that the denomination can find unity by being both conservative and liberal.

The idea of “big tent” United Methodism is attractive to many leaders. The UM Church has historically been more open and accommodating to a variety of theological perspectives. The question remains whether such an approach can hold the church together in the face of the deep conflict over ministry with LGBTQ persons. The UMC Next and Mainstream groups believe it can.

What we find when we look at how this is fleshed out in Hamilton’s thinking, however, leaves the crucial questions unanswered.

Hamilton’s understanding of conservatism reflects an ambiguous and broad perspective that begs the question. “To be conservative means there are certain things that are true and they’re always going to be true and you conserve those treasures – the manifold treasures of God. You hold on to those things and you continue to preach and teach them even if they’re not popular or cool anymore.”

This description certainly fits all the traditionalists I know. We continue to preach and teach that God designed human sexuality to be expressed exclusively within a lifelong covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. We do so even though this idea is “not popular or cool” in contemporary U.S. culture. However, Hamilton does not believe this 3,000-year-old understanding is part of the tradition that is “always going to be true.” Instead, he puts it in the bucket of biblical teachings that might have reflected God’s will for a particular time, but no longer. Or perhaps he puts it in the bucket of biblical teachings that never truly reflected the will of God. (See Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible, where he proposes dividing Scripture up into three buckets: one containing teachings that reflect God’s will for all times and places, plus the two other buckets named above. Along with other conservative scholars, I would reject that method of categorizing Scripture.)

The issue is not whether to be conservative, but what to conserve. How do we decide? United Methodists say that the Bible is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). Hamilton and his allies are unable to point to any place in Scripture where it is established that sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are affirmed or even permitted. Yet, he throws out the established understanding of the church without any Scriptural warrant. That is not conservatism.

Here is where Hamilton would probably say that our conservatism needs to be balanced by our liberalism. “To be liberal means to be generous in spirit, open to reform, willing to see things in new ways today that I didn’t see them yesterday…constantly growing.”

Again, I see this description of liberalism in many traditionalists I know. They maintain their convictions with a generous spirit and a pastoral heart. Traditionalists seek to reform themselves and the church in the light of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. United Methodist traditionalists strive to grow in our understanding of Scripture and its application to the circumstances of life, open to new perspectives and seeking to become more like Jesus.

This description does not answer the question of how or when a liberal approach to theology ought to modify or nullify a conservative approach. Is the acceptance of same-sex relationships a “reform” (good) or an abandonment of truth (bad)?

Hamilton elaborates on his understanding of how this balance occurs. Faith, he explains, “holds together the head and the heart and that holds together evangelism and social justice, personal piety and at the same time social holiness.” The church can hold both Republicans and Democrats.

It is a mythical stereotype that conservatives care only about evangelism and personal piety, while liberals care only about social justice and social holiness. Most United Methodist I know care about, and practice, both, although they might emphasize one more than the other. This notion of balance gets us no closer to resolving the conflict that is currently ripping our church apart.

Hamilton’s notion of balancing conservatism and liberalism really amounts to little more than asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” Under this framework, conservatives have to become less conservative and liberals less liberal in order to “meet in the middle.”

In the end, deciding what is true or what should be an “article of faith” cannot be settled by determining whether it is conservative or liberal, nor can it be resolved in the tension between the two. There has to be some other “higher authority” to adjudicate what is true.

United Methodists, along with most global Christians, believe that “higher authority” is the Bible, God’s self-revelation meant to lead us into all truth. Of course, the Bible is read and understood under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Church’s Tradition, informed by our understanding of the historical context of its writers. Submitting to God through obedience to Scripture helps us settle the question of what are those “certain things that are true and they’re always going to be true and you conserve those treasures.” It also helps us be open to new perspectives and continual reformation and growth.

We are called to be both conservative and liberal in Hamilton’s sense. But first and foremost, we are called to be followers of Jesus Christ, “learners under discipline” in obedience to Jesus’ teachings throughout the Bible. It is that framework that makes sense of life, theology, and everything else.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

 

Comments

  1. Tom points out the neon flashing issue, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). Hamilton and his allies are unable to point to any place in Scripture where it is established that sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are affirmed or even permitted. Yet, he throws out the established understanding of the church without any Scriptural warrant.“

    Actually, the issue is neither conservative, middle, or liberal. It is BIBLICAL — that is, it is either Biblical or non-Biblical. For these 47 years of debate, no one, not a single person has been able ”to point to any place in Scripture where it is established that sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are affirmed or even permitted”. The only way liberals have had to support their positions has been “to throw out the established understanding of the church without any Scriptural warrant”, or contort, twist, confuse, contextualize, conflate, et al the Scriptures in order to deceive. With Hamilton and colleagues, it’s just a matter of hiding Scriptures under a bucket and ignoring them. That certainly is not a “middle way” (a false premise in and of itself) with this conflict. That is Hamilton’s way, a purely liberal way, or the highway as is evidenced by his UMC Next Plan.

    • When Adam Hamilton Bible studies started being introduced following the arrival of a new progressive pastor to our small traditional and rural UMC, the handwriting was on the wall. The conferences attempt at slowly turning the church progressive failed. The church is bankrupt in more than one way today (it only took two years to break the church). With the coffers now empty and more than two thirds of giving units gone, a member of the congregation made last months mortgage payment on a million dollar loan out of pocket.

      Disclaimer: We split from our local church over its lack of stewardship. Those in leadership who by church law are responsible for the church, missed the mark.

  2. What does our Bible say? Paul says that Grace is better than the Law, therefore as Grace Believers in 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 4, we are Ambassadors for Christ and not Disciples. Our Commission of Grace is 2 Cor. 5: 16 – 21. Our Ministry is one of Reconciliation to God. Our Church is not trying to enlarge the Body of Christ. We have not been an obedient Church and we have lost our way. Paul says we do not know Jesus after the flesh, but we are to know him after the Resurrection. If we do not believe in the Resurrection we are still in our sins, see 1 Cor. 15: 17.

  3. Jim Wolfgang says

    While the Good News Magazine website is available to anyone, I do not think very many of the Centrist/Progressive advocates read the articles. I do not know how they would hold to their positions if they did. After reading Tom’s, and the articles on its left side, one could hardly misunderstand the position Traditionalists are advocating. I am beginning to replace my anger at those who advocate changing our position concerning the practice of homosexuality with a sense of pity (but not entirely). When a denomination slips its anchor from the Bible, over time it will drift into increasing ambiguity and irreligious irrelevance. I understand one of the very progressive denominations has declared fornication is now acceptable Christian behavior. I am very offended at the bad faith (literally) practices of the Centrist/Progressives. It seems a great injustice to me to manipulate as they do our structure and Christian covenant; but there is a far higher Judge to whom those who lead the church are accountable. These articles posted today are very useful in clarifying the Traditionalist theology.

  4. From UM News. I stand in total and complete confusion.

    ————————————————————————————
    The effort to create a new United Methodist structure for U.S. decision-making received a boost from bishops in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

    “The central conference bishops will promote and solidly support the U.S. regional conference proposal,” Bishop Harald Rückert of Germany announced to applause near the end of the fall Council of Bishops meeting.

    Rückert was reading a statement he said the Central Conference College of Bishops unanimously passed during its meeting Nov. 1 after hearing a presentation on the proposal.

    The Connectional Table, a multinational body that acts as a sort of church council for the denomination, drafted the proposal. The group’s goal is to have a body to take up matters that solely affect the U.S. church and ease the burden on the multinational General Conference. U.S. proposals often dominate The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body assembly.

    While the Connectional Table doesn’t see the proposal as addressing the denomination’s homosexuality debate, other United Methodists see it as a way of allowing the church in the U.S. to make changes to allow same-sex marriage and ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

    Wespath, the denomination’s pensions agency, collaborated on the legislation to help vet any legal or administrative issues. The proposed regional conference would encompass the United States and maintain the current five U.S. jurisdictions.

    “I believe this proposal will enable us to live more fully as a worldwide church,” said Bishop Christian Alsted, Connectional Table chair, in a statement after the bishops’ meeting. “It will give the church in the U.S. a structure to deal with its unique missional challenges and to do its visionary, strategic and administrative work.”

    Ultimately, General Conference delegates will have their say when the assembly convenes May 5-15, 2020 in Minneapolis.

    The central conference bishops’ endorsement is a big deal for an idea that previously has faced strong opposition. As recently as 2016, petitions to create a U.S. central conference and other proposed new regional structures didn’t make it out of committee at General Conference.

    Bishops don’t have a vote at General Conference, but they have influence in other ways. When bishops speak, United Methodists frequently listen.

    The Council of Bishops in May affirmed the Connectional Table’s work on the structure. The central conference bishops went a step further — asking their steering committee to invite representatives from the Connectional Table to present the proposal to General Conference delegates in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. United Methodist protocol dictates that church leaders only visit an area at the resident bishop’s invitation.

    Immediately after the Nov. 3-6 Council of Bishops meeting, UM News reached out to multiple central conference bishops to for comment on the proposal. Only three responded, including Alsted.

    “The makeup of The United Methodist Church has changed significantly over the past 20 years and soon half of its membership will be in Africa,” Alsted told UM News. “For the General Conference to become a meaningful global gathering that will help the church pursue God’s mission, it needs to be reshaped.”

    For more than 200 years, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have operated with assumption of United States as default.

    The denomination’s constitution authorizes central conferences to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.

    In practice, that means central conferences make decisions related to administering their own clergy pensions, their own church property and in some cases, their own clergy’s educational requirements.

    Alsted said central conference bishops wish to extend that privilege to entire church.

    Since 2012, the denomination’s Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters has been working to determine which parts of the current Book of Discipline’s Part VI are essential for all United Methodists and which can be adapted. Part VI, the largest section in the Discipline, deals with organizational and administrative matters.

    The Connectional Table began working on its proposal to have a place where the U.S. can do its adaptive work. It also has worked closely with the standing committee throughout the process.

    Alsted stressed that the Connectional Table’s work should be seen alongside what the standing committee has been doing and not as a way to solve the denomination’s current impasse over homosexuality.

    The Connectional Table proposal
    Under the Connectional Table’s legislation, creating a U.S. regional conference would be done in two stages:
    Stage I would form a committee of the General Conference, with legislative function, to deal with U.S. matters — adaptable disciplinary provisions, U.S.-related resolutions, and non-disciplinary petitions concerning the U.S.
    Stage II would form the U.S. regional conference, and the Stage I committee would end its work.
    Creating a new legislative committee on U.S. matters would only require a simple majority vote at the 2020 General Conference.

    However, creating the regional conference requires multiple constitutional amendments — a high hurdle. For ratification, amendments must receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and at least two-thirds of the total votes at annual conferences.

    Read frequently asked questions

    See legislation in English

    That hasn’t stopped other United Methodists from seeing the Connectional Table’s proposal as a way to maintain connection despite church divisions.

    Bishop Rodolfo A. “Rudy” Juan, who leads the Davao Area in the Philippines, urged fellow central conference bishops to support the Connectional Table legislation.

    He said the benefits of the Connectional Table proposal includes a certain level of autonomy “because we can be self-governing, self-propagating and self-sufficient.”

    This summer, he and others in the Philippines College of Bishops specifically recommended restructuring that would allow for regional autonomy to deal with divisive issues like homosexuality.

    A group of Filipino United Methodists has submitted legislation to General Conference in support of the bishops’ resolution and the Connectional Table’s proposal. That legislation also calls on the Connectional Table and Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to develop a new form of church organization that allows for different cultural contexts.

    Sierra Leone Area Bishop John K. Yambasu, president of the Central Conference College of Bishops, has been leading negotiations about the future of the church.

    However, he said, he would like to see regional conferences for each of the denomination’s four continents to deal with issues that pertain to those continents.

    Yambasu said homosexuality is a hot button issue in the U.S., not in Africa. “There are particular issues that have nothing to do with Africa,” he said.

    Yambasu added that the whole concept of central conferences has a historical stigma to it because of the similarity of the name to the Central Jurisdiction, which segregated African-American Methodists in the U.S.

    “I’d rather we just be a regional conference,” he said.

    • Thank you for your concern, Anthony. We have heard that the African bishops did not object to the U.S. as a central conference plan because:
      1) They interpreted it narrowly to only apply to certain pension and legal matters, not that it could lead to different ordination standards in the U.S.
      2) The African church would not be part of a denomination where the standards on sexuality changed, so it would not matter what that denomination did or how it was organized.

      Regardless, the WCA is prepared to provide the structure for a new denomination in the event that the UMC changed its position on sexuality.
      Tom Lambrecht

      • Thank you so much for your clarity and reassurance regarding the position and promise of the WCA. Please have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving.

  5. I don’t know why more people can’t see it. What is going on in The
    United Methodist Church today is a microcosm of what is happening in the United States of America. There are two distinct sides with very little interest in compromise. What is more apparent is the one side will not abide by the rules set by Law. Somehow, they are above that. They seek to gain control of the system and force all others to comply with their wishes. As if somehow, what they pass, the others will simply comply. The biggest issue is the illegal immigration issue with sanctuary cities and entire States. Before that is was homosexual
    marriage and now we see gun control coming to a boiling point. I find it interesting the 15 years before The War Between the States, there was a split in the Methodist Church with the creation of the Southern Methodist Church. Is it wrong to think we are going tribal again? Many denominations are at odds over classic teachings and many portions of the nation are at odds on our purpose/direction. Two years ago, I was against a UMC split. That has changed. When people will not abide by the rules, it is time to part ways peacefully. As long as I get my little Wespath pension, it does not effect me anyway. Likewise, for our Nation, will about 300 counties try to rule the other nearly 3,000 counties with their agenda?

  6. Bryan McRoberts says

    Splitting the Bible into 3 parts is an easy way to dismiss sections that you find disagreeable. Jefferson did this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jefferson_Bible

    I know UMC clergy who don’t believe that Jesus was fully man or that he died on the cross, which of course found the cutting floor of Jefferson’s Bible. The question really is, who decides what is authoritative? Who decides what gets cut? If the answer is *yourself*, then you have become your own God (much like an atheist), but you retain the trappings of religion to make you acceptable in the eyes of man. And in order to maximize that acceptance among men, you can modify or further cut and adapt what is ‘Scripture’, so you don’t run afoul of the whims and fancies of the current age. Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law, not to abolish even one jot of the law. Cutting the Bible into 3 parts is abolishing jots by the jot-load. We disagree fundamentally on the source of authority, which is why we disagree on what that authority says.

    Perhaps Hamilton and his cohorts think that they can salvage the UMC by pretending that others will go along with their thinking, but I have to wonder why they want to do so? What is the point of keeping the UMC whole when it has spent 40 years bickering and Hamilton’s side constantly calls the other side unloving? If they get their own denomination they can bucket and cut up the Bible as much as they want without worry that the traditionalists will get in their way. Isn’t that more appealing to them?

  7. Jim Wolfgang says

    I sense that the United States Central Conference idea makes a great deal of sense to the denomination outside the U.S. Presently central conferences are given the authority to deal with part VI of the Discipline, which includes organization and administration and especially pertains to issues concerning clergy, chargeable offenses, investigations, trials, and appeals. Part VI of the Discipline does not affect the core beliefs of the denomination, so there would be no change to the social principals or doctrine of the denomination: just how the U.S. church if it were a central conference enforces those beliefs. In a sense, we already are in this situation in the U.S. except it is in disorder here and the church outside the U.S. is fed up with being drug into our fight. On a positive note, the acceptance of the practice of homosexuality will likely never be approved as the non U.S. United Methodist member is probably now the majority and growing ever more so. The Social Principals are in part V of the Discipline, not part VI and a U.S. central conference could not change that without the consent of the rest of the now majority denomination. I suspect the progressives see their demand to be theologically accepted as increasingly remote and that is why the Western Jurisdiction is organizing to leave, maybe the rest of the progressives will consider that as their answer too. Also, the decision of the 2019 General Conference and the accountability measures still stand.

    • Jim, I sure hope you are right. But, per the article — although the Connectional Table states that their plan does not address the denomination’s homosexuality debate, it certainly appears that liberals are supporting the plan because they see it as an avenue to get their way and liberalize the American branch of the church. For what other reason(s) would the liberal Connectional Table be pushing this plan other than to liberalize the sexual ethics, marriage, and ordination standards of the American branch of the church? Is the Connectional Table being honest, or is this just another example of the long and growing list of deceptions being carried out on the church by the left? Tom Lambrecht answered my “confusion” question earlier in that the African bishops support the plan in that they interpret it narrowly to NOT include liberalizing the church, especially the American branch. So, what in the world did the Connectional Table people tell the African bishops, all the Central Conference bishops about this plan in order to get their support?

      “While the Connectional Table doesn’t see the proposal as addressing the denomination’s homosexuality debate, other United Methodists see it as a way of allowing the church in the U.S. to make changes to allow same-sex marriage and ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.”

  8. Jim Wolfgang says

    Anthony: you have caused me to consider too where “the devil is in the details.” If the U.S. became a central conference and the bishops and annual conferences (specifically the boards of ordained ministry) were responsible, or irresponsible, in upholding our discipline concerning the practice of homosexuality and chargeable offenses, then the situation here in the U.S. would likely stay as it is. Since at present it seems the progressives/centrists are having it their way, ignoring the will of the rest of the denomination and not being accountable, that may be their goal.

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